New & Noteworthy

Giving the Keys Back to the Cell

February 6, 2013

When someone has a bit too much to drink, it is a good idea to take away their car keys. This keeps them safe until they can drive again. But the next morning, that hung over person needs to get their keys back so they can get to work.

Cells sometimes face a similar situation. Instead of being drunk though, cells have something go wrong while they are growing and dividing. When this happens, the cell stops the cell cycle at the next checkpoint, fixes what is wrong, and then starts the cell cycle back up again where it left off.

Scientists have learned a lot about how the keys are taken from cells, but not a whole lot about how they get them back. Fong and coworkers help to rectify this situation in a new study out in GENETICS. There they identified proteins key to releasing a yeast cell from its S-phase checkpoint.

If a cell’s DNA is damaged while it is growing and dividing, replication is slowed at the S-phase checkpoint. This gives the cell a chance to fix the DNA before it is copied. The authors found that in the absence of the DIA2 gene, yeast cells had trouble getting replication up and running again. This implies that this gene is required for yeast to overcome the S-phase checkpoint. The cell needs DIA2 to get its keys back.

Dia2p is an F-box protein involved in identifying certain proteins for destruction. It is one of several interchangeable subunits that provide specificity to the SCF ubiquitin ligase complex. The idea would be that Dia2p is important for degrading the “keeper of the keys,” the protein responsible for stopping the cell cycle in the S-phase.

To test whether Dia2p is important for checkpoint recovery, Fong and coworkers first activated the S-phase checkpoint by adding the DNA damaging agent MMS. Then they removed the MMS and measured how long it took the cells to finish copying their DNA. The dia2Δ mutant was significantly slower than wild type.

Given that Dia2p is involved in ubiquitin-mediated degradation, the authors reasoned that it may help a cell get out of S-phase arrest by degrading a protein that was keeping it there. To find this “keeper of the keys,” Fong and coworkers looked for mutations that rescued dia2Δ cells in the presence of high levels of MMS. The idea is that if they knock out the gene that is keeping the dia2Δ cells arrested, then the cells could overcome the block caused by the MMS.

One of the genes that came up in the screen was MRC1. To confirm that Dia2p and Mrc1p work together in releasing a yeast cell from the S-phase checkpoint, the authors constructed a double mutant carrying dia2Δ and a mutant version of MRC1, mrc1AQ, that they knew was checkpoint defective. Indeed, the double mutant behaved like wild type in their checkpoint recovery assay. Since the mutant Mrc1-AQp could not keep cells at the checkpoint, there was no need for Dia2p to target it for degradation. The double mutant cell never let go of its keys.

The simplest model to explain what happens in wild type is that when its DNA is damaged, a cell is prevented from progressing through S-phase by Mrc1p. Then when the DNA is repaired, Dia2p, providing specificity to the SCF ubiquitin ligase complex, targets Mrc1p for degradation. The cell is now released, allowing the cell cycle to continue.

The authors did a lot more work that we won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that Dia2p and Mrc1p are not the only players involved in releasing a cell from the S-phase checkpoint. There were other genes, both identified and unidentified, that came up in their screen. These will need to be studied as well.

And this isn’t all just interesting from a scientific standpoint. Many cancer treatments work by damaging the cancer cell’s DNA while it is growing and dividing. A better understanding of how cells are arrested and released may lead to better cancer treatments.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics